Monday, April 2, 2012

Language and the Sacred.

Despite suffering the criticism common to most all "modernist" scholarship in our post-modern age, Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1917) remains a classic of religious thought and continues to be cited by contemporary authors and scholars. In the course of his investigation of the numinous, the sacred, Otto discusses the means by which the Sacred can be conveyed or expressed. Otto's thought has some potentially practical consequences for liturgical praxis in the west, perhaps even the praxis of prayer itself. Otto upheld the notion that certain languages are sacred languages, versus the language of quotidian and profane use. Otto opines that he immediate feeling or expression of the Sacred was conveyable through language, "It finds its most unqualified expression in the spell exercised by the only half intelligible or wholly unintelligible language of devotion, and in the unquestionably real enhancement of the awe of the worshiper which this produces." (Otto 67)
     Otto makes the above cited statement in the context of  identifying the means by which the numinous could be expressed - although there is, in my reading, an unresolved tension in Otto's thought with regards to causative agent of the expression - the numinous itself or a human agent. Otto, however, implies the power of the language itself, in so far as a specific and somewhat obscure language may communicate something our vernacular or a language in reasonable proximity to our vernacular cannot. Amid the current resurgence of interest in Latin in the Roman rite, Otto's considerations ought to be heavily weighed. Otto is not a traditionalist confining himself and his audience to a limited purview of the evidence nor does he have dreams of restoring an old order. Otto was and remains a religious thinker of the highest caliber, and his appeal to a sacred language (a language by and large removed from one's vernacular) extends across denominational and indeed religious confessions.
     Otto does not define how an obscure language necessarily communicates the Sacred or is a vessel by which the Sacred communicates itself. Otto is more concerned that in observing religious phenomenon that may or may not engender an experience of the numinous versus the rational, language seems to play a role in suspending the desire for reason and awakening a feeling of proximity to the numinous. Otto, mind you, was not alone in this proposition nor its originator. The perennialist school of thought has, to the best of my knowledge, advocated for the necessity of what it identifies as the sacred (and somewhat obscure) languages of the great religious traditions for proper communication with and from the divine. This has been the case since, I believe, Rene Guenon. Of course, one cannot ignore the less refined aesthetic arguments made by contemporary traditionalists (largely in Roman Catholic circles); the arguments, though lacking the sophistication of Otto or the perennialist school, are honest attempts to express the "feeling" received by hearing Latin, be it recited or chanted, in a liturgical context.
     Otto's advocacy for (obscure) sacred language has generally fallen under the broader critique of his work. Much of Otto's argument appears highly context specific. Otto presumes details appropriate to his context as universals. Similarly, the perennialist school is criticized with touting cultural particularities as universal metaphysical principles, including their theory of language. Does Latin genuinely communicate the Sacred outside of certain cultural context? Otto believes it does. Do words of arcane or otherwise obscure languages (ancient varieties of Greek or Hebrew for example) genuinely carry a potency to affect expression of the numinous? Otto argues in the affirmative.
      If there is one thing of value derived from contemporary Biblical Studies, it is the emphasis it places upon the primary languages of the Biblical manuscript tradition. Proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and, to a certain degree, Coptic or Ge'ez underscores the degree to which the vernacular religious tradition, from the middle ages onwards, has glossed over the complexities of the linguistic heritage of the sacred text. I and other theologians or Biblical scholars would go further and include the Latin tradition as a gloss of the primary linguistic traditions (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). From the perspective of Biblical scholarship, there is little inherently "special" about the Latin language; Latin fails to shed much light on what might be the original Biblical text, the pre-Christian tradition behind the text, and, in fact, is often an agent of textual corruption.
      The argument may be made that, translation errors and textual corruptions admitted, the Latin text tradition spawned a distinct spirituality. I would not dispute this point. However, objectively, one must consider that this spirituality is, at times, a faulty reading or transmission of the sacred text. When placed under the microscope of scholarly analysis, the Latin tradition is, textually speaking, prone to a greater degree of subjectivity; a spirituality is later inserted into the text and becomes part of the text's form. In the light of textual criticism, to make the argument for a sacred language one has to do more than highlight the historical fact that a spirituality did eventually develop from this language and this language has hosted it's own variety of manuscript traditions. The manuscript tradition itself must, one way or another, shed light on the diversity of pre-Christian textual families, thus situating it in the earliest strata of textual families. The Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts (the LXX and the New Testament) are well attested to in this regard. The Vetus Latina and Vulgate (Jerome's, Clementine or Nova) cannot sustain such a claim. Claims for Latin's place as a sacred language must be qualified: the Latin textual tradition is the host of the distinctly Latin or Western spirituality that gradually developed after the collapse of Rome, however, it is also a spirituality and textual tradition that at times diverges from the critical sources of the Biblical text. Additionally, the Latin textual tradition offers no insight into the pre-Christian varieties of the Biblical text - we cannot use Latin as a means of peering into what texts may have shaped the worldview, theology and spirituality of the New Testament authors and perhaps the New Testament figures themselves. If we want to speak of this subject from the perspective of divine-human communication, the Latin text does not permit access to the dialogue that occurred before the codification of doctrine and dogma in a hierarchical church. The Septuagint, for instance, alerts the reader to both the pre-Christian context and serves as the textual and theological base upon which many of the New Testament authors based their thought.
    Although, Latin's history as primarily a host to spiritual tradition that diverged, at times, from the earliest sacred text argues for another view of sacred language. Language is highly personal. It is impossible to speak of a particular language in general metaphysical terms as no one response to language is typically the same. Italians may not think much of their language outside of cultural and ethnic pride. For any descendant of the Italian diaspora, the Italian language can be, all dialects considered, a means of re-connecting with ancestors they'll never know, a land in which they've never lived, and a culture which they've never experienced in its totality. And, of course, Italian expresses a particular religious history and identity to the land. If Latin is the model, then any language, no matter how far removed from the sacred texts, may facilitate the expression of the sacred. Although, this does not do much to bolster the case for restoring Latin or arguing that Latin is a sacred language.
    Yet, can we argue that some languages are in fact sacred, at least in so far as they are the host languages of a sacred text? Privately, I lean towards this position. However, my criteria is primarily scientific, in so far as it is based off of textual criticism. This position, whether rightly or wrongly, argues that before one can access the un-rational, one must engage one's rational faculties and critically examine the language and the textual tradition as the basis for divine-human communication.